WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After declaring victory in the city of Tikrit, the next significant operation for Iraqi forces will likely be clearing out Islamic State fighters from the refinery city of Baiji, a U.S. military official said on Thursday.
“I just happen to think that’s really the next significant military maneuver,” the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to a small group of reporters.
Last November, Iraqi security forces backed by Shi’ite paramilitary groups managed to break a months-long siege of the Baiji refinery that had forced it to shut down operations.
But parts of the city and surrounding area remain contested, the official said, and Iraqi forces were diverted from Baiji to bolster the battle in nearby Tikrit.
“In order to do the Tikrit operation, the (Iraqi security forces) ... thinned the defense of Baiji and ISIL took advantage of that and has been pressuring them. But they’re holding,” the official said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The Iraqi government claimed victory over Islamic State insurgents in Tikrit on Wednesday after a month-long battle for the city supported by Shi’ite militiamen and U.S.-led air strikes, saying that only small pockets of resistance remained.
The militants captured the city, about 140 km (90 miles) north of Baghdad, last June as they swept through most of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim territories.
The U.S. official also acknowledged “that there are pockets (of Islamic State fighters in Tikrit) that still have to be eliminated and they are working their way through those pockets.”
Recapturing Tikrit could give Baghdad momentum for a pivotal stage of the campaign: recapturing Mosul, the largest city in the north.
Still, the official renewed U.S. doubts that the battle for Mosul could happen before the fall, given the mid-June start of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and the extreme summer heat.
“Given the pace of events as I see them now, and the environmental factors of Ramadan and the summer (heat), I think it’s probably going to be a little longer than we thought,” the official said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Lisa Shumaker